Record for World’s Most Expensive Ceramic, Chinese Imperial Revolving Vase Fetches US$41.6m at Beijing Auction

A Chinese imperial yangcai revolving phoenix vase that dates back to the 18th century auctioned off in Beijing a few days ago has renewed the record as the most valuable ceramic vessel. It realized a staggering RMB 265.7m (US$41.6m), eclipsing the previous record held by a ru-ware brush washer sold four years ago. 

The rare revolving vase with intriguing mechanism and superb craftsmanship made its auction debut in 1999 at Christie’s London and it was acquired by distinguished Chinese art dealer William Chak for £331,500 (US$537,030). It was sold to a prominent Asian collector, before it went under the hammer this time and fetched a record-smashing price. 

Lot 5153 | Imperial yangcai ruby-ground with carved openwork “phoenix scene” revolving vase, Qianlong

Mark and period of Qianlong (1736-1795)
Height: 63 cm
Provenance: (Organized by The Value)

  • Private Collection, Scotland (acquired in 1875) and thence by descent 
  • Christie’s London, June 5, 1999, lot 99 (Price realized: £331,500 / US$537,030 - Acquired by William Chak from Chak’s and sold to an important Asian collector)

Estimate upon request
Hammer price: RMB 231,000,000
Price realized: RMB 265,650,000


Prior to the sale, the record for any revolving vase was held by another Qianlong period imperial vase. It was sold for RMB 92m (US$13.3m) at a Beijing Poly sale in 2019. 

The opening bid for the present vessel, also from the Qianlong period, was RMB 200m, which already paved the way for the record-breaking moment. The price climbed up steadily in RMB 1m increments and received a total of 20 bids. Just like the remark made by the auctioneer standing on the rostrum, “every bid edges ever closer to another milestone in auction history,” it was eventually hammered down for RMB 231m, and was sold to a bidder with the paddle number 8696.

Closer looks at the decorations of the present vase

After premium, the revolving vase realized a whopping RMB 265.7m (US$41.6m), 77 times higher than when it was last seen at auction. With that being the most expensive ceramic in the world now, the reshuffled top three are as follows:


  1. Imperial yangcai ruby-ground with carved openwork “phoenix scene” revolving vase
    Qianlong period (1736-1795) | RMB 265,650,000 / US$41,570,853 | Jun 2021, Poly Beijing
  2. Ru Guanyao brush washer
    Northern Song dynasty (907-1127) | HK$294,287,500 / US$37,757,086 | Apr 2017, Sotheby’s Hong Kong 
  3. Doucai “chicken cup” from the Meiyintang collection
    Chenghua period (1465-1487) | HK$281,240,000 / US$36,279,960 | Apr 2014, Sotheby’s Hong Kong 

Ru Guanyao brush washer
Northern Song dynasty (907-1127) | US$37,757,086 | Apr 2017, Sotheby’s Hong Kong 

Doucai “chicken cup” from the Meiyintang collection
Chenghua period (1465-1487) | US$36,279,960 | Apr 2014, Sotheby’s Hong Kong 

Avid Hong Kong-based Chinese antique dealer, William Chak

Imperial yangcai ruby-ground with carved openwork “phoenix scene” revolving vase


The name Tang Ying forms an inseparable link with porcelain revolving vases in China. Born in Northeast China in 1682, Tang was the superintendent of the imperial kilns. He was at the helm of Beijing Palace imperial workshops for nearly three decades, and had served both Qing-dynasty Emperors Yongzheng’s and Qianlong’s courts. 

Emperor Qianlong (r.1736-1795) was known for his passion for opulent ceramics and exotic artworks. During his reign, he had commissioned Tang to come up with various new porcelain eccentricities. Porcelain trompe l’oeil and revolving vessels, such as the present example were some of the innovative ideas from Tang. 

Structure of a revolving vase
Qing yangcai revolving vessel, Qianlong period | Collection of National Palace Museum, Taipei 

The double-layer structure and openwork decorations of the present revolving vase are a true testament to the great advances made at the imperial kilns in response to Emperor Qianlong’s insatiable demand for novelty vessels. 

The movable parts are highly complex in both their construction and decorations. Each element has to be separately glazed, enamelled, and fired to perfection, so that they can be assembled flawlessly. It was therefore, an extremely challenging work of art to the potters back then. The firing process had to be executed perfectly, so that all elements shrunk the same amount in the firing and nothing would be distorted or collapsed.

It also explained why it took an average of 18 months from start to finish, to produce a revolving vase that was not only successfully made, but up to par to be presented to the Emperors. That is also why so few of these have survived to the present day.

Closer looks at the decorations of the present vase

The revolving vase has reticulated outer layers and painted interiors. As one rotates the inner section of the vase, the reticulated outer walls - which are decorated with a figural landscape of multi-color foliage, would reveal the inner sections. 

The vase is of baluster shape and has an elegant tapering neck that is applied with archaistic kui dragon handles, which were popular among imperial porcelain vases of the Qianlong reign. The sgraffiato ruby-ground necks are flanked by a phoenix in high-relief, gracefully swooping from cascading clouds among a variety of birds. 

Closer looks at the decorations of the present vase

Soaring amidst the clouds, the phoenix is covered in flamboyant shades of pink, yellow, green, and blue. Phoenix was seen as the mythical empress of all birds and is revered as a symbol of femininity. It often appears in Chinese works of art throughout the history and, as suggested by a popular Chinese saying “the dragon soars and the phoenix dances,” was commonly paired with the dragon - a symbol of Chinese emperors. 

The ruby-ground necks are decorated to each side a number of auspicious motifs, including chiming stones and upside-down bats. The bats symbolize happiness in Chinese culture, while the word for upside-down in Chinese is a homophone for “arrive.” The motif, therefore, symbolizes the arrival of happiness. The base is in enamelled turquoise and centered with an underglaze-red four-character Qianlong imperial seal mark against a white cartouche. 

Side-by-side comparisons of the present vase’s bird motifs (right) and the illustrations of those in the “Manual of Birds” (left) residing in Taipei’s National Palace Museum 


One of the initial steps before the prized porcelain vessels were fired included the drafts made by Qing court painters. Some of the bird decorations resemble closely with the illustrations in the “Manual of Birds” - an imperial album that details the features and habitats of birds.

Besides the intriguing mechanism and craftsmanship, the present revolving vase of sheer size, measuring 63 cm tall, is the largest vessel of its kind in private hands, also the second largest one known to exist, trailing just behind a 73 cm tall example in the collection of The Palace Museum of Beijing.

Auction Info:

Auction house: Beijing Poly
Date: June 7, 2021